Radcal Praxis and Civic Network Design 

Murali Venkatesh

Community and Information Technology Institute, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University < mvenkate@mailbox.syr.edu >

 Jeffrey S. Owens

School of Information Studies, Syracuse University < jsowens@syr.edu >



Technology-powered civic networks are social constructions that develop in relation to a particular macro-structure. Macro-structural realities such as differential access to power and resources modulate how effective actors are in inscribing their preferences into emergent network forms. With civic network design viewed as the locus of conflict and struggle, the designer must consciously cultivate an outlook of reflexivity. Social learning is foundational to the means as well as ends of socially-progressive design work. Current socially-progressive civic network design practice is analogous to advocacy planning in urban planning, where designers advocate for social inclusion. 



Technology-powered civic networks are social constructions that develop in relation to a particular macro-structure (meaning social structure, here referring to historically-constituted relational patterns among social positions). They are proposed and are designed by incumbents of social positions (persons, groups, organizations), and the cultural practices, belief systems, and dispositions -- interests, values, norms, identities -- that are pervasive in that macro-structure at that historical moment should be presumed to shape network form. Macro-structural realities such as differential access to power and resources modulate how effective actors are in inscribing their preferences into the form; structurally-powerful actors tend to be more successful than structurally-powerless actors in this regard. Like organizational forms in general, civic networks are products of a particular intersection of the macro- (macro-structure) and the micro- (the developmental conditions in which human designers interact to produce design products). The network’s mission, its operative strategies, and the social constituencies that are included or excluded through design choices are a function of this intersection. This sociological, institutionalist-inspired view of civic network design recommends a certain kind of reflexivity on the part of the designer, one that emphasizes her historicity. This, we argue, is an outlook the designer must consciously cultivate.          

We view design as the locus of conflict and struggle, whereby entrenched cultural practices, beliefs and  dispositions attempt to pattern emergent artifacts in culturally compliant ways and alternative practices, beliefs and dispositions struggle to ground themselves in concrete form. If the first wins out, the design product embodies and reaffirms prevalent macro-structure; an alternative social order finds concrete form if the latter prevails. We include among design products a broad range of artifacts including technical specifications, and service contracts and project by-laws that govern use and further development of the artifact. These products tend to be mutually-reinforcing: contracts and by-laws, for instance, can ensure that the civic network’s present technological configuration is reproduced over time and, through it, the preferred social order. As we note below, design must be conceived of in even broader terms, as design of means as well as ends: design includes specification of ICTs, contracts and by-laws, as well as the developmental (or institutional) conditions – the means -- which yield these design products. Our ideal here is the reflexive designer: one who understands technology design in these broad terms and as located in a particular historical moment and open, as such, to historical forces and structural pressures.      

Our reflexive designer is aware that as a new social form, the civic network must necessarily emerge in relation to the historically-constituted relational structures in the geo-spatial area, and in relation as well to the practices, beliefs and dispositions prevalent there. To a greater or lesser extent, explicitly or implicitly, civic networking projects attempt to institute new relational patterns in the areas they purport to serve, whereby heretofore excluded constituencies are reinserted into the social fabric and existing relational structures are re-worked in socially-progressive ways; the ideals they champion tend to center around access equity and social inclusion. The reflexive designer sees the developmental setting as an arena where the project’s driving ideals encounter entrenched realities in the project area. Design activity entails social choices, which is why they are so contentious. Picking one design option over another includes some constituencies and excludes others. The contest is seldom one of equals. The embedding macro-structure and its asymmetric power distribution empower some social actors over others to effectively “limit change and create domination in the micro sphere” (Burawoy, 1991). These pressures enter the developmental setting through designers’ choices to shape network form. Designers serve as conduits through which such pressures are inscribed into the form to reproduce the prevailing macro-structure. But actors can choose to channel alternative forces for “rewiring” the social order. 

Individuals (as well as organizations) are host to multiple cultural logics from prior socialization. These logics -- “material practices and symbolic constructions” (Friedland & Alford, 1991) -- embed them and account for the dispositions, practices and beliefs that define them. These logics guide situated action and encode “criteria of legitimacy by which role identities, strategic behaviors, organizational forms…are constructed and sustained” (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005). Some of these logics may be more entrenched, more institutionalized than others. Generally, more institutionalized logics tend to guide behavior more readily than do less institutionalized logics. It is conceivable that civic network designers – a category that ideally would include all potential stakeholders -- enter the developmental setting with at least two sets of logics in their cultural toolkit (Swidler, 1986): one that embeds their habitual social role (for example, “community resident”, “Internet service provider”) and the other, the civic networking logic. The habitual, of course, is invested in and stems from the prevailing social order, while the civic networking logic may (often does) look ahead to an alternative order. The encounter between these logics in design can be more or less contentious depending on how ambitious are the civic networking project’s aims to rewire the prevailing order. The more radical the aims, the greater will be the resistance from entrenched dispositions. What can our reflexive designer do to increase the likelihood that the civic networking logic will prevail in this contest, that it will, in fact, effectively counter more conservative orientations to successfully realize itself in concrete form?                       

Design reflects intention and yet, outcomes often are unintended. This is because design activity is usually seen in terms of products or ends that result from the activity. Typically, civic networking design  committees (or steering committees) set out to specify a particular configuration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) that would enable the network to become operational. This would be an example of direct design, where the intent is to direct the product in a certain way to meet certain specifications and aims. But efforts at direct design often fail from unforeseen interactions among the interest of more and less powerful stakeholders (see Goodin, 1996). Our reflexive designer would focus not just on the ends of design but importantly on the means as well. The means of design are seldom the focus of design activity, and yet they are a crucial element in the social infrastructure of social constructions. Indirect design – design of the social conditions within which design activity occurs -- is not only possible but a requirement, we would argue, to guard against unintended outcomes. Design of ends must start with design of the means, which, in the case of civic network design, may be seen as necessary second order public goods influencing production of the civic network – the first order public good (see Gualini, 2002). Situated actions can be guided by design of social conditions for “probabilistic activation” (Tsuokas, 1989) of preferred logics to structure design products in intended ways. How should our reflexive designer go about doing this? There are two possible targets for indirect design interventions, one internal and the other external, and they shape the design committee’s social choice processes as well as the design ends that are identified and pursued. Expanding the design committee’s managerial capacity (Brint & Karabel, 1991) for monitoring its own internal relations and constitutive practices is an example of the first. Instituting social controls on the committee’s external relations is an example of the second.

How the committee thinks about its internal social and material relations profoundly affects the deliberative climate within which design choices are made. What formal and informal rules must be crafted to improve the likelihood that design options are openly debated by a plurality of publics in a spirit of “participatory parity” (Fraser & Honneth, 2003)? Conversation rules must guarantee individual rights while also promoting the pursuit of the common good. Assuring openness is a utopian ideal that is exceedingly difficult to accomplish in the reality of a more-or-less stratified and differentiated polity, where some constituents are more powerful than others, but we argue that this is a liberal democratic ideal worth pursuing by civic network designers. This stems from a conviction that civic networks, like the mass media, are crucial components of a community’s public sphere. Conceptually if not empirically, civic networks necessarily are sites of contestation featuring a multiplicity of publics: targets of contestation could be the broader social agenda as well as the form of the network itself. Recognizing the civic network’s obligation to be hospitable to a plurality of publics is an important amendment to a common-enough conception of such networks as community resources. The term community highlights reciprocity, mutuality and consensus. Publics, on the other hand, is a broader idea connoting debate and contestation among social groups constituted around divergent interest, ideology, and identity; the term better accommodates dis-sensus and dissonance (Fraser, 1999). Accordingly, a civic network may be conceived of in social process terms rather than as an entity, incorporating as it grows and matures both communities based on consensus as well as contending publics. One might even argue that the desired end-state would be a normalized set of more-or-less consensual publics. A process view acknowledges that the network must stay resilient and representative, both catalyzing and reflecting broader social changes. Such a view also allows designers to think of design in incremental terms. Institutions develop through layering (Thelen, 2003), whereby changes are layered on top of more enduring ‘core’ elements without necessarily changing them. As long as participatory parity is assured, designers can proceed on the assumption that they can respond to situational contingencies as they see fit without locking the design into an irreversible state.                   

Crafting a robust set of guidelines on how the committee should manage its internal relations – including rules of deliberative engagement – is an imperfect but necessary bulwark against the reality of power asymmetry in the macro-structure. Assuring rough equality (Fraser, 1999) in the micro-order is a step toward an egalitarian macro-order; it would be hard to argue that there is no link between the means and such ends. Besides rules of engagement (“everyone gets a chance to speak”, for e.g.), our reflexive designer would work to include useful techniques in the committee’s repertoire to augment its capacity for enlightened self-management and concerted action. For example, What cultural logics and preconceptions of civic networking do designers come into design with? Identifying these at the outset can make actors more reflexive and help “loosen themselves” from knee-jerk recourse to structural reproduction in the choices they make. Expanding capacity for deliberative action may also be helped by instituting an ethos of the long view: actors are unlikely to focalize the near-term if they are answerable to actors with longer time horizons (Pierson, 2000). This looks ahead to social controls.

Social controls – normative or “regulative institutions that ensure individual behavior accords with group demands” (Coser, 1982) -- can shape what courses of action are pursued by legitimizing some behaviors over others. Institutionalizing philanthropic (versus self-interested) behavior by Minneapolis corporations, Galaskiewicz (1991) reports, was helped by “peer pressure and selective incentives”; philanthropic conduct was rewarded with national mass media publicity. Controls instantiate the Kantian publicity principle, which requires that design choices are “publicly defensible” (Goodin, 1996). Local mass media outlets, elected officials, urban planners and opinion-leaders can be external controllers and sources of public oversight on the design process. The reflexive designer will incorporate such sources of control into the design process. This is easier said than done. This might require challenging well-entrenched notions of civic identity that these actors may be invested in. For example, a community that thinks of itself as driven by the logic of economic growth (and which community today isn’t?) may yield up few sources of social control who are prepared to go to bat for the social equity logic. Reframing civic, and individual, identity to include the latter could be especially challenging if the community lacks a history of civic activity. Successful reframing, however, would help incorporate community actors as well as other targeted social movements into the project, thus expanding the moral, rhetorical and material resources that the reflexive designer constitutes in a circle of solidarity (Jermier, 1998) to guide the committee’s design choices and hold it accountable for them.   

All social actors have the capacity for reflexivity: they are context-aware operatives who select from among logics and action repertoires when deciding how to act in a situation. This institutionalist idea is crucial to the foregoing: indirect design can succeed only if actors are credited with this capacity. Praxis refers to analytic understanding of the sources of structural inequality and then acting to normatively reconstitute the prevailing social order (Benson, 1983). Our reflexive designer may be confronted with the following choices: to inscribe the design with the project’s transformative aims or to compromise on those aims in light of situational contingencies. This dilemma is likely to arise in civic networking projects based on broadband ICTs. Broadband requires, as a practical necessity (Winner, 1993), significant technological, financial and know-how resources to sustain. As such, designers may have to choose between two logics: the social equity logic and the financial sustainability logic. Affirming the former is to affirm the goal of structural change through the network; affirming the latter is to empower the prevailing macro-structural resource distribution. These logics need not be mutually-exclusive. Our reflexive designer is an enlightened pragmatist, knowing when to balance strategic structural aims against situational contingencies without, however, losing sight of the prize. She is conscious always of her capacity for social choice, and works to enlighten her fellow designers of the same.  

Design choices are social choices. To acknowledge one’s capacity for choice is to acknowledge one’s historicity. In the context of civic network design, such an outlook stems from ongoing reflection on the project’s dialectical relation to broader cultural and structural forces. The challenge for civic networking cohorts everywhere is to institutionalize such an outlook to ensure that (a) designers recognize their design choices as social choices that are publicly deliberated, defended, and challenged and (b) the outlook becomes self-activating and trans-individual, which means every designer – every participant in design -- thinks and acts like our exemplary reflexive designer. Why should we attempt to institutionalize such an outlook? The field of urban planning offers instructive lessons. In the 1960s, Paul Davidoff argued for a new socially-progressive urban planning outlook called “advocacy planning”:

“The public interest, as he saw it, was not a matter of science but of politics. He called for many plans, rather than one master plan, and for full discussion of the values and interests represented by different plans. He brought the question of who gets what – the distributional question which the rational model had so carefully avoided – to the foreground”. (Sandercock, 1998, p. 171)             

Urban planning schools adapted this outlook into their curricula, as they did its successors over the years, to train planning professionals sensitized in these alternatives to the technical-rational planning model. The rational planning model and its proponents helped affirm the prevailing social order and its distribution of power and resources. This had been the taken-for-granted approach to planning practice, one that was unreflexively reproduced through urban planning research and training curricula until Davidoff’s salvo. The most recent paradigm shift is represented by the radical planning approach. Radical planning praxis, Sandercock notes, is discontinuous with rational planning and is explicitly critical and progressively political in its concerns:  

“Radical practices emerge from experience with and a critique of existing unequal relations and distributions of power, opportunity and resources. The goal of these practices is to work for structural transformation of these systemic inequalities and, in the process, to empower those who have been systematically disempowered” (p. 176).   

Bandwidth is socially-produced social space. Urban planning theorists call attention to the replication in built urban space of hegemonic power and resource distributions. Telecommunications bandwidth – broadband, in particular – is no different, wherein some interests are rendered central while others are marginalized, pushed out to the periphery. Spatialization of broadband bandwidth tends to mimic broader social distributions due to the practical necessity of resources required to sustain broadband civic networking projects; ironically, these projects often start out intending to redistribute some or all of those very same resources in socially progressive ways to effect structural change. Bandwidth, of course, can also be designed from a radical standpoint to serve as the site for distributive justice and insurgent citizenship (Sandercock, 1998). As an enlightened pragmatist, our reflexive designer recognizes that designs can be changed incrementally, that networks may develop through successive layering. As such, the civic network might start out serving certain publics and expand from there through concentric incorporation of new, hitherto excluded publics. The key to assuring that this occurs is to keep ongoing design discussions open and to guarantee rough equality (Fraser, 1999) in deliberative forums. Early adopters representing the state or market may be necessary especially in broadband networking projects: well-resourced “anchor tenants”, to use shopping mall terminology, can help sustain the network financially. The trick is to view them as bandwidth homesteaders not colonizers, and to work to keep the design open to alternative developmental trajectories inspired by the promise of structural transformation.    

Social learning is foundational to the means as well as ends of socially-progressive design work. Both defenders and challengers of the prevailing order may learn from the environment to press their case. Just as aggressive market logics may be (and often are) used to justify promoting financial sustainability in purportedly civic endeavors, so could reflexive designers draw on their circle of solidarity to mount effective cultural offensives favoring social equity. For example, framing digital inclusion as a civil right links it to broader, deeply resonant cultural tropes and may make available new resources and action repertoires to counter market logics. But establishing and sustaining such links is complex and challenging (Scully & Creed, 2005). Our plea is for higher educational institutions like Information Schools to consider the urban planning discipline as a change model for their academic research and training programs and, through such programmatic efforts, contribute to producing an institutionalized field of socially-progressive technical practice with its own trained cadres and distinctive professional identity. Despite emerging circuits of solidarity (the Learning in Communities meeting at Pennsylvania State University in the summer of 2005 was a step in this direction) focused on civic networking, designers still tend to work in relative isolation; what they may learn from others even within the civic networking arena tends to be more or less opportunistic. Current socially-progressive civic network design practice, we would argue, is analogous to advocacy planning in urban planning, where designers advocate for social inclusion and may even empower the marginalized to fight the fight themselves. But the degree to which advocacy design – if we may call it that – is institutionalized in civic network practice is unclear. The point behind institutionalizing anything, of course, is to inform thought and action in consistent ways based on an agreed upon corpus of knowledge, and, more fundamentally, to instill a distinctive way or style of responding to challenges. We are not sure this has occurred yet. Depending on the nature and complexity of the project, civic network design choices are very much at risk of being driven disproportionately by technical-rational considerations to the detriment of properly social ones. This is regrettable and must change. As designers and educators we must continue to educate ourselves through social learning while institutionalizing cultural transmission through academic programs to train the next generation of civic network designers, so that they recognize the kinds of social and professional challenges that designers (and planners) in other fields continue to face, and, learning from them, know how to respond creatively to them through their own practice.        



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